Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

Take a timeout for nature at Seattle's Magnuson Park

Between soccer and youth-ultimate events, check out the wetlands, home to beaver, frogs and 200 different birds.


From sports fields to art sales to its immense lakefront off-leash dog area, Magnuson Park is a lot of things to a lot of people. But to Seattle's nature fanciers, it's a special place.

Just ask Emily Bishton, otherwise known as Teacher Emily, who spent 13 years as an environmental educator, showing people around the park.

"It has such a diversity of ecosystems. The wetlands are very unique. There is a milelong lakeshore, acres and acres of grassland ecosystem."

There is forest too, but it comes in small chunks, so there is lots of the kind of edge habitat — part forest, part meadow — that attracts a lot of wildlife. For example, around 200 species of birds will spend time in the park over the year.

It's safe to say that most families who come to the park aren't there for the scenery. Thousands of kids play youth soccer and/or youth ultimate, and most of them end up playing at Magnuson at some point, either in the turf fields or in the wide grass field called the sports meadow.

Because the fields are nestled up against the wild part of the park, they are easily accessible if you want to go for quick stroll during warm-up. At times the wild comes onto the field. For example, when my son was in seventh grade, play at his ultimate game came to a halt when a teammate found an owl pellet on the sidelines.

It wasn't always a wild area. From 1920 until 1970 it was a naval air station. The first flight around the world, in 1924 took off and landed there. Four Douglas World Cruiser biplanes took off on the journey. Two made it the whole way. Since it stopped being a place for flights and became a place for city recreation, the park has evolved.

Engineers installed the most spectacular section, a 30-acre network of wetlands and ponds, in 2008 and 2010. They are just east and south of the playing fields. They are still changing year to year.

"I would kind of call them still in elementary school, but not a baby," Bishton says.

Still, the area teems with life, and fall is a good time to see it. Flocks of migrating birds descend on the fruit-bearing shrubs around the ponds. Coopers hawks watch for prey from the cottonwoods — at least they do if the crows let them. As the sun goes down crows gather in the trees by the giant mulch pile, just to the east of the ponds, and raucously prepare to fly to their night roosts. Being near the pond as night falls is a good way to see a beaver. And as the leaves fall, you get more visibility and better views of beavers and their lodge in one of the ponds. 

"Right as it turns dark, there's a good chance you can see adult beavers and young beavers also."

Even if you don't see beavers around, or it's the wrong time of day, you can find a lot of evidence of where they have been at work. It doesn't take long to find stumps or logs with chewed ends. 

Beavers are relentless in the pace of their activity, taking down trees, building dams and lodges, and even digging canals. They are as busy as a … as a mother with three kids and a full-time job. And their work isn't always convenient for humans. They have flooded the trails from time to time, so that parks staff have had to install devices called "beaver deceivers" to keep the water flowing. But Bishton says the beavers also do the city a service, by chewing down young trees.

"The beavers have definitely helped clear some open space for some trees to get as big as they should and so people to be able to see," she says.

Pied-billed grebes like the ponds. Before you come by, you might want to listen to the amazing sounds they make, so you'll recognize them when you hear them. Other sounds to listen to in advance: Pacific chorus frogs, which are noisiest in spring, but still pipe up from time to time in fall. Sometimes you'll hear them on warm days in winter.

As fall continues on, a variety of ducks arrive for the winter. The males are all decked out in breeding plumage. One of the most spectacular: the green-winged teal. Along with a a stripe of bright green on each wing, breeding males have rust-colored heads with iridescent green stripes over each eye. Also dapper: the black and white bufflehead.

Bishton likes that it's not just kids participating in nature programs who get to experience what goes on in Magnuson Park. Kids who are there to play sports, or to wait while siblings play sports, can come across things too.

"There's so much opportunity to expose kids to nature," she says.


More about Magnuson

You can hear Emily Bishton talk about the amazing plants and animals of Magnuson Park in the Magnuson Nature News Show, 4 p.m. Mondays on SPACE 101.1 FM, or streaming here.

For information about free nature activities at Magnuson Park, go to Coming soon: Scarecrow Fest, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, in Magnuson Park's Children's Garden.